Theatre in the Circe Episode
The Circe episode from Ulysses unfolds as a playscript. Scholars such as Cheryl Herr have explored this episode in the context of the conventions of pantomime in England and Ireland and the ideological positions suggested by popular theatre. Theatre was especially popular in Joyce’s Dublin, in particular, the annual Christmas pantomime, a pre-vaudeville extravaganza consisting of a comedic or melodramatic play punctuated by variety acts. In Joyce’s time, the pantomime and its downscale equivalent, the music hall, were eagerly anticipated and well attended. “Everyone” knew the the actors, the songs, and the jokes performed at Dublin’s three most popular theatres. Even if they did not actually attend the play, Dubliners knew the plots and stars from playbills in pubs and posters affixed to hoardings all over town.
Of especial interest in the context of Ulysses is the theatrical form as “the cultural scripting of the ‘inner’” (Herr 96), in which stage plays offer messages, explicit and ideological, on class interests, nationalism, individuality, family relations, and gender defintion. The medium of theatre, more so than literature, offers an immediate and, in the case of early twentieth-century Dublin, more widespread dissemination of protest or reinforcement of these concepts.
The theatre could be seen as “both an intensification of ordinary experience and as a touchstone of excellence by which the everyday could be measured” (Herr 99). The many references to theatres, plays, actors, or songs in Ulysses serve to cast light on a character, showing how popular culture enables that character (and ourselves) to synthesize the outer world into an inner life. However, the risk of allowing theatre to script one’s identity is, according to Herr, the inevitable disjunction that results when theatrical stereotypes fail to live up to expectations.
At the same time that the theatre suggests an escape from real life, it also, writes Herr, tends toward commodification. Theatre as commodity reinforces class distinctions: Richie Goulding can sit only in the gods (the cheap seats), while Mrs. Yelverton Barry occupies a box. Hierarchy also sets up another form of transaction, that of women dressed alluringly and men responding to this “sexual showcasing” (Herr 102). Merchandise in the theatrical exchange, then, involves not only the “goods” on stage, but also the sexual temptations in the audience. This dynamic also extends beyond the theatre to the public street and anywhere advertising about the play or ticket sales take place.
In Joyce’s time, pantomime was characterized by snappy dialogue (filled with puns), flamboyant costumes, corny humor, and splendid scenery. Story lines were fairly basic and usually involved a rags-to-riches story in which the boy gets the girl after beating the odds. The performance also included a harlequinade, incorporating commedia dell’arte figures known since the seventeenth century. The panto appealed to the bourgeois audience not only through its theatrical values, but also for its socio-economic aspects. It was a reflexive and adaptable art form, often characterized by a dramatization of class tensions and economic inequities. Herr also points out that the panto also mirrored the middle class work ethic, putting people to work at the time of year when they most needed money and providing entertainment when they most wanted it.
The topicality of the panto makes it a valuable cultural artifact. Joyce explores this aspect of the theatre throughout the novel with the result that by embedding specific references to time and place, he ensures the novel’s longevity and relevance not only to literature, but also to popular culture, social, and political issues. Joyce relishes such examples of this kind of local color, adding that he understood that theatre, like the newspaper, reflected tastes, topics, and trends of an era.
Other pantomime characteristics in Circe (and the novel as a whole) include gags directed at the police, catalogues of streets and localities, processions of characters, a preoccupation with goods and merchandise and their advertising, and an awareness of industrial elements such as railroads or docks. One specific pantomime discussed in connection with Circe is Dick Whittington, actually produced in Dublin in 1904 (and still popular today). Based on a mixture of fact and folklore, the play follows the main character, an poor orphan boy often performed by a female actress, who arrives in London, finds work for an alderman, is accused of theft and sent to sea, makes his fortune, and returns to London to wed the alderman’s daughter. Herr sees the story as an essential cultural myth in which the deserving hero moves from poverty to wealth, from naivete to worldliness, and wins the beautiful and rich bride. (The so-called trouser role in which a woman plays the part of a man is an old theatre and opera tradition, just as in early theatre men played both male and female roles.) In the context of Circe, Dick Whittington is a “social blueprint for … Bloom’s transformations [to] chart the reconciliation in a single dramatic character of the desires of various classes“ (Herr 127).
Herr offers a valuable historical footnote to the passage in Circe in which Bloom’s speech as alderman (where he is greeted by Timothy Harrington, late thrice mayor of Dublin, whose name is close to Dick Whittington's) is followed by a lengthy procession of people and professions. Every profession in this list appears in the 1904 Thom’s Directory except ad canvasser—in the wide-ranging social spectrum of this procession, Bloom is excluded, a poignant reflection on his status as an individual and a member of his local and national community.
This essay draws on Chapter 3: Plays and Pantomimes in Joyce’s Dublin, from Joyce’s Anatomy of Culture by Cheryl Herr; photograph: Silent movie and stage actress Ethel Hall in Dick Whittington, 1920s.
© Leann Davis Alspaugh. All rights reserved.